Last week I had the opportunity to spend some time with a friend (Ross) in Palo Duro Canyon and Caprock Canyons. With our wives and kids back at home, we headed to Palo Duro for a few days and nights (in another blog), then my buddy and I drove into Canyon, Texas, and had a high-carb and gluttonous lunch at Feldman’s Diner. Feldman’s is a regular stop whenever I visit Palo Duro, and after a few days of protein bars and fruit, the chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes really hit the spot. But this short blog is about the trek to and through Caprock. This was Ross’s first trip there, and I looked forward to his company. Here were the quick highlights:
1 The beautiful Caprock Canyons
2 Hidden slot canyons
4 A trek to find a hoodoo
5 Upper South Prong Trail and the Fern Cave Slot Canyon
So let’s get started!
An hour after filling up at Feldman’s, we were cruising east on Highway 87 to Quitaque, then north to Caprock Canyons. The winds were howling that day, so much so that we had to slow down on FM 1065 just a few miles before the park. The gusts were moving quite a bit of red dirt into the air producing a thick red fog with about 10 feet of visibility. We made it through, checked in at the visitor center, and made our way into the canyon to the South Prong Campground. We were the only humans for miles, and I’d chosen this site because of its proximity to the Upper South Prong Trailhead – meaning we could roll out of our tents and start the hike well before sunrise.
First, though, we had to set up my Ross’s tent. I brought all my gear, too, except the tent, so I was relegated to the back of my 4Runner. Not ideal, but at least I was safe from the wind. With Ross’s tent secured (so we thought), and with temps in the mid 90s, we rested - napped and read - for a few hours in the shade of the empty parking area of the campground. Our plan was to hike south from Eagle Point Trailhead, investigate a few unmarked slot canyons, then find a lone hoodoo to photograph at sunset.
Eagle Point Trail
Around 6:00pm, we started the walk, crossing over the Natural Bridge (it is shown on the park map). Ross walked down to take a peek at the underground tunnel, then, underwhelmed, we kept going. I must say at this point I can’t reveal the location of the slots we were looking for. In recent years, I’ve seen too many of these pristine natural formations vandalized with graffiti – names carved into the stone and even some that have been spray painted – and these are all off the trail! It makes me ragey to think about someone deliberately defacing something natural that has taken thousands of years to form. I don’t understand the thought process. I imagine if one really wanted to find these slots, there is enough out there on the internet that the locations could be discovered, but I can’t be privy to the defacing of such beautiful surroundings.
Onward! We found our jumping off point and headed down a sandy wash. Five minutes later, we found a small gypsum slot that was impossible to access unless we were willing to slop through the mud.
We chose to admire it from above, but I longed to slide down into the slot to have a better composition. Alas, it was not to be this time. It was only ~ 20 feet long. Maybe I’ll spend more time there on the next visit if it is a bit drier.
From there, after 20 minutes or so of traipsing through the sand, we found our next destination – Tunnel Slot – named by my friend, the Caprock Canyoneer (you can google him).
Comprised of an upper two-thirds quartermaster sandstone and a lower one-third gypsum, it was a larger slot with 20-foot walls, long shadows, and more colorful layers and textures than I had anticipated. Ross and I spent some time in here roaming and exploring and enjoying the cool breezes that blew between the walls.
Ross was patient while I explored the canyon for different perspectives. I think he rather enjoyed the breaks!
After an hour or so, we made our way out of the canyon and up onto the ridge and searched for an hour in vain for one of the few hoodoos of Caprock. We found some beautiful sights and a colorful sunset, and eventually made our way back to the trailhead as darkness began to fall.
After reaching the small pull-out parking area, we drove to a restroom station that had running water and showers. After a quick rinse, we returned to the confines of the car to find the winds had shifted, turned colder, and were making their presence known. We both looked forward to bedding down for the night – Ross in his tent and me in the back of the 4Runner. But as Lee Corso would say… “not so fast my friends.” About a mile up the road, the local buffalo and their buffalo babies were resting in the road, content and unconcerned with our presence. I wanted to be respectful to the local wildlife, so we waited. After about 10-15 minutes (seemed a lot longer), I flashed my brights a few times, then gently honked my horn. Nothing. Then I opened and shut my door. That seemed to get the big bull’s attention. Then the others (very) slowly began to move.
After 20 minutes or so, they finally cleared a path in the road so we could head onto our spot for the night. Whew!
Upon arriving back at our campsite, we were (especially Ross) dismayed to find the wind gusts had pulled up the stakes holding his tent, depositing his temporary home into some nearby bushes. This is when we were particularly glad our wives and kids were not here. I don’t think they would have handled this well. And so went the night.
I awoke many times while trying to sleep in the back of my car, and sometime in the middle of the night, the temperature dropped from the 70s into the mid 30s. Finally, I crawled out from my bag, climbed into the front seat, and no sooner had I started the engine to warm things up than Ross was opening the passenger’s door, shivering and ready for the heater to kick in. I think it was a more miserable night for him, and that’s saying a lot.
Upper South Prong and another Slot
Caprock is pretty remote, and on this night, we were the only people camping. With us both shivering, it was time to get moving. Ten minutes later, we were on the trail with the Milky Way glowing in the night sky. Despite the unusual cold spell, walking beneath the stars in a beautiful nighttime setting restores my soul. Soon, we began to warm up as we hiked the Upper South Prong Trail heading northwest. Fortunately, Caprock Canyons’ trails are well marked with arrows. Otherwise, we could have easily strayed from the path, especially when we started a steep ascent in the dark.
An hour later and with a good sweat going, Ross and I made it to the high point of the South Prong trail, taking in the view as the first light made its way across the desert peaks.
Ross hunkered down beneath some small wind-blown trees and waited patiently for me to photograph the sunrise, then we were off to find Fern Cave, one of the more well-known places in the park. We made our way another half-mile or so down to the fern-laden cave, then headed back up to find a hidden slot canyon. The canyon, known locally as the Fern Cave slot, was a ways off trail, down a steep wash, then another 20 feet down slick Trujillo sandstone. For the last part, I’d highly recommend a rope.
Yes, it was cold; temps were in the low 40s! When we arrived at this point, Ross pulled out a rope, fresh from a sealed bag, tied it onto a tree, pulled it tight, and we both watched in horror as the rope immediately frayed under the pressure. The 1,000 lb test weight on the rope was not as advertised. I’d resigned myself to taking in the views from above, but Ross was determined to get us down to the bottom of this slot. He’s athletic and agile and fearless, and within ten minutes, he’d slowly pieced a route together that would bring us to the bottom. I wasn’t so much worried about getting down. Getting up and out was the challenge, especially moving 20-feet up on slick rock. He assured me we could do that if we worked together. I was hesitant. I know a guy who’s friend slipped at this very location and ended up at the bottom with a broken jaw and later in the ER in Amarillo. After some coaxing, I worked my way down, butt-scooting, then dropping the last 8 or so feet with a thud. No idea how we were getting out, but I left that to the future.
The canyon was beautiful, tall, and much to my dismay, even had some names (graffiti) etched into the sandstone. The walls were a bit of orange and maroon, and I felt small as I imagined the power of the water after a storm as it would roll through this canyon and pour out high above Fern Cave.
But all good things eventually have to end, and I had to face my fears and exit the canyon. Ross is taller than I am, so as it turned out, he could deliberately and slowly work his way out. It was a push-pull effort, as Ross would push me up from my feet, then I'd cling to a small nub of a rock, stabilize, then he'd move up, repeat the process and before long we were both free of the canyon walls. I have to say, it gave me a sense of accomplishment and relief to be above those stunning and slick rock faces.
After bushwhacking our way back to the trail, we enjoyed the views from South Prong in the daylight.
We explored a few other areas, but these were the highlights. It seems the more I visit Caprock, the more I learn to appreciate the beauty of this remote, harsh, and unforgiving land. I look forward too many returns!
Happy Travels, Friends.